Updated Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 12:01 PM
WASHINGTON — The looming automatic budget cuts known as sequestration have been a long time coming — 19 months to be exact — but local authorities Monday were still attempting to divine how exactly the $85 billion in national cuts could sting.
State unemployment officials, for instance, are waiting to learn how cuts, set to start Friday, unless Congress comes up with an alternative plan, might shorten or shrink federally funded extended benefits for the long-term unemployed. The Labor Department has yet to announce whether laid-off workers who have exhausted their normal 26 weeks of benefits would lose any of the 37 weeks of additional unemployment, and whether the maximum weekly check of $604 might be reduced.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has warned it may shut air traffic control operations at eight airports in Washington, including at Everett’s Paine Field and Renton Municipal Airport. But airport managers say its still unclear if and when that might happen.
“There is a lot of uncertainty,” said Sheryl Hutchison, spokeswoman for the Washington State Employment Security Department. Nearly 141,000 state residents who are collecting unemployment checks could be affected, “but we don’t know what to tell them.”
That’s partly because the country has never faced these kinds of mandatory budget cuts before, said Joseph Minarik, director of research for the Committee for Economic Development, a policy research group in Washington, D.C., and a former chief economist for the House Budget Committee.
The sequestration was born of a bitter standoff between Democrats and Republicans in 2011 over federal spending that took the government within hours of a shutdown and left financial markets spooked by the possibility the United States would default on its debt. Congress called a truce, created a bipartisan “supercommittee” co-chaired by Sen. Patty Murray that tried unsuccessfully to forge a plan to trim the federal deficit and adopted a 10-year, $1.2 trillion sequester as a poison pill to deter failure.
In a government shutdown, the federal budget goes to zero and all services not deemed essential to safety and life are suspended. So mail delivery and passenger flights won’t stop but national parks and museums close.
Sequestration, however, imposes mandatory across-the-board spending cuts to defense and discretionary domestic programs. So federal agencies ranging from Bureau of Prisons to the Internal Revenue Service and the National Institutes of Health are drawing up a mix of unpaid furloughs, hiring freezes, reduced grants and other measures to cut tightened budgets.
Entitlement programs, such as Social Security, Pell Grants for students, Medicaid and Medicare coverage and veterans benefits wouldn’t be affected.
Yet with three days to go before what appears a certain deadline for the sequester, many details about how it would be carried out remain unknown. Departments like defense or transportation have some leeway to pare back or cancel capital projects or contracts to blunt the need for furloughs. But payroll-heavy agencies such as the FBI, Minarik said, would have less flexibility. Employees must get a 30-day notice before a furlough.
Ryan Zulauf, manger of Renton Municipal Airport, worried that the FAA’s threats to pull out its air traffic controllers would make takeoffs and landings trickier for pilots. The airport serves private and chartered planes as well as Boeing 737 assembled nearby and flown to Boeing Field for customer pickup.
“There is a reason why we have an air-traffic control tower here,” Zulauf said. “Somebody has to keep the aircraft separate.”
If sequestration takes effect, the FAA also is planning to close the air traffic control tower at Paine Field, near Boeing’s widebody plant in Everett. Dave Waggoner, Paine’s airport director, said pilots then would have to use nontower radio communication to steer clear of other aircraft.
Minarik, the economist, said lawmakers seem intent on testing the public’s tolerance for the pain of sequester before taking action. Just up ahead is the expiration of the temporary spending bill that will keep the federal government funded through March 27 — and perhaps another showdown to avert a shut down.
“This is no way to run a country,” he said.
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Chris Joseph Taylor / The Seattle Times, 2007
Renton Municipal Airport officials are worried that the FAA’s threats to pull out its air traffic controllers would make takeoffs and landings trickier for pilots.